Memories of the LA Riots

Night one of the L.A. Riots. This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the most destructive riots in U.S. history.

By Al Perrotta Published on May 1, 2017

I wasn’t prepared yesterday morning for the rush of emotions.

The story we posted was positive and picturesque: “L.A. Peace Parades Mark 25th Anniversary of Rodney King Riots.” But the memories rushing back to my mind were no parade or picnic. I was in Los Angeles for the riots. My city burned, my heart broke, my politics changed. And to this day I hold in contempt those who made the riot inevitable.

Setting the Stage

On March 3, 1991 Rodney King led police on a long and wild high speed car chase. The LAPD finally got him to stop. Fueled by PCP and built like an NFL lineman, King didn’t merely resist arrest. He fought it like the Hulk. Even tasers didn’t take him down. Fueled by adrenaline, fear, police procedure — and in the case of at least one officer a fondness for aggressive tactics — four LAPD officers began wailing on King with their batons.

Across the way, a video camera began rolling. When the “Rodney King video” hit the news, the stuff hit the fan. The video of the beating was and remains awful viewing. Blow after blow rains down on King. The force seems obviously excessive. It is sickening and, without context, dehumanizing. And it played straight into the historic meme of the violent and racist LAPD.

The officers were charged. They would face trial. They would face justice as justice in this nation was designed.

But that wasn’t good enough for politicians like Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Justice did not mean a fair weighing of the facts in a court of law. Waters’ mantra was “No Justice, No Peace.” Over and over to any camera or microphone in sight, “No Justice, No Peace.” Her message to the streets was unmistakable: “If it’s not a guilty verdict, go to war.”  “No Justice, No Peace.” 

The city grew more and more tense as the trial approached and proceeded. “No Justice No Peace.” Tighter and tighter, neighborhoods more anxious and angered. “No Justice, No Peace.” Waters and her cohorts in the race racket had flooded L.A. with gasoline and handed out matches.

The Explosion

I was at work on L.A.’s Westside when news of the verdict came. Hold your breath. “Not guilty!” The 4 four officers were acquitted. My heart sank. “Oh God. Here it comes.” And as sure as the Dodgers wear blue, Los Angeles exploded. The “flashpoint” was an intersection in South Central that now sticks in infamy: Florence and Normandy. A white truck driver named Reginald Denny was dragged from his truck, smashed nearly to death with a tire iron, fire extinguisher and a brick. The L.A. riots were underway.

Reginald Denny LA Riots - 900

This May 1992 photo shows truck driver Reginald Denny shortly after he was attacked and beaten during the riots in Los Angeles, California. (AP Photo)

Stories of mobs attacking stores in South Central and other minority neighborhoods spread. (“If they’re mad at police why aren’t they attacking the LAPD headquarters, Parker Center?”) That would come later in the evening. As would the fires. 

I returned to work the next morning, but our office quickly shut down. The rioting was spreading out of control. 

Usually driving in L.A. is every man for himself. You’re too consumed with your own music or fabulousness to care much about the others packing the road. But this day, the other drivers were very, very courteous, and extra cautious. Nobody wanted to tick anybody off. Everyone knew the other guy might have a gun. We were frightened. 

I decided to get off the 405 freeway and take a route home along the coast. This presented an elevated view of the entire L.A. Basin. What I saw brings tears to my eyes even now. Countless plumes of smoke were rising all across the skyline. The plumes stretched from below South Central up into Hollywood. A year removed from the Gulf War, the scene looked like the images of Baghdad after intense bombing. But it was live. And it was my adopted hometown. No peace was in sight. Maxine Waters had her wish.

The Riots Continue

I arrived home safely. My girlfriend Holly called. She was a reporter. After a year working the overnight shift for City News, this was supposed to be her first day covering the L.A. courts. Unfortunately, her replacement had suffered a heart attack while covering the first night of the riots. Holly had to report for the overnight shift. She would have to drive through the riot hot spots to get to her Hollywood office where she’d be holed up by herself in a building smack dab in the middle of the violence. I volunteered to come with her. “No. I’ll be fine.” Holly was old school, a hard-boiled character out of a Raymond Chandler novel.

Still, it would be a long night. A long couple of days.

The City of Angels was hell on earth. Fires raged. Looters ran wild in the streets, breaking into business, stealing anything they could get their hands on. What hauling off a big screen TV has to do with police brutality I could never figure out. Firemen were being shot at. Korean businesses were being destroyed by the dozens. People were dying. 

On the third day of the riots, Rodney King himself, his speech slurred by the damage inflicted during his arrest, issued a heartfelt, historic plea for the violence to stop. “Can we all just get along?”

I have more respect for the late Mr. King, endless rap sheet and all, than for the esteemed gentlewoman from L.A.

But there’s another man who sticks in my memory. He was a middle-aged African-American who was out on the street urging, begging, pleading with the young rioters to stop destroying their own community. “This is where your grandmother shops!” He was ignored.

Order was only restored after California Army National Guard troops, assisted by U.S. Marines, took control of the streets. 

The Toll

By the time the L.A. Riots were over, more than 100 people had been killed in violence directly or indirectly related to the riots. More than 2,000 people had been injured. 3,600 hundreds fires were set. Some 1,100 business were destroyed. Over a billion dollars damage had been done, roughly half to Korean-owned businesses. 

The healing started.

However, Maxine Waters took to calling the riots … the looting, the murder, the arson, the criminality, the self-destroying, self-defeating senseless destruction … a “rebellion” and “insurrection.” She insisted the looters were “not crooks.”

Ask me when I began to move away from being a Hollywood liberal. It was that moment. Liberal policies had created the economic difficulties in minority areas, and her rhetoric helped burned those areas down. Now she was standing atop the scores of dead trying to plant a flag of nobility above the burning and blood-filled streets. What civilization was calling thugs she was calling heroes.

(She wasn’t the only one. About six months after the riot, I was visiting a Harvard bookstore. And there in the Current Affairs section was a row of books on the “L.A. Insurrection.” I nearly lost my lunch. “If this is current liberal thought, I want no part of it.” Funny when you think about it: How many people can say Harvard made them more conservative?)

25 Years On

It’d be nice to say time has taught Waters something in a quarter century. But we can’t. Just last week, she again described the riots as an “insurrection” and a “defining moment” of “black resistance.” And whenever there’s an opportunity to preach understanding and unity, she digs into her charred playbook and cries “No Justice No Peace” instead. 

When I hear those words pass her lips now, on a national stage, with America divided as never before, with tensions turning our land into a tinder box, I flashback to the buildings aflame and Reginald Denny’s bloodied skull. I see the smoke plumes on the horizon.

And I pray, “Please, God, spare us the repeat.”

 

 

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